An age-old question amongst photographers is what lens is best for wildlife photography. Go to any photography trade show or workshop, and it is almost certain this question will come up. Combine the popularity of the topic with new lens choices being introduced (did anybody see the new Nikon F4 180-400mm with 1.4x just announced this week), and it can be a daunting decision. Here are my thoughts on four lenses that I think work best.
The picture above shows a 300mm PF F4, a 500mm F4 and a 600mm F4, all primes and all expensive. It is obvious that the bigger lenses are just that…big. The first question I would consider is how much weight/size you want to carry around. I absolutely love my 600mm F4, but I have may leave it at home if size and weight (it weighs around 11 pounds) will hamper my travel or shooting. The 500mm is 8.5 pounds, so still pretty heavy. The 300mm PF F4 only weighs about 1.5 pounds, incredibly small and light. At about $2000, it is also much much cheaper. I haven’t seen the new 180-400mm F4, but this would be another choice.
Performance-wise all these lenses are tack sharp, and have speedy autofocus. You pay more for the fixed F4 prime, but you get autofocus/sharpness performance that matches. They all have VR; I use VR with my big lenses on a tripod to help reduce vibration, it makes a big difference. What I find is I use my 300mm F4 when I need a mobile, lightweight option, especially great for travel. Last summer photographing bears at Lake Clark this was the only lens I used. Attached to my D500, this gave me a 450mm angle of view, amazing for such a light setup. And I could always get more reach by adding a 1.4x converter. For serious wildlife work I bring my 500mm or 600mm. If I am bringing big glass, chances are I will bring my 600mm. The sharpness of this lens is legendary, and I absolutely love the bokeh produced at F4, a look you only get with super telephotos and wide open apertures.
One important lens is missing, the 200-500mm VR F5.6. At 4.5 pounds and an incredible price of $1400, this lens is fast becoming the most popular wildlife lens I see on workshops. The lens is tack sharp, not too huge, and the least expensive option. What is the catch? There really isn’t one. Sure, it is a zoom lens with a slower aperture of F5.6, which translates to not as fast autofocus, less creamy bokeh and more flare issues (with more lens elements). But I have tried this lens on numerous occasions, and been impressed with its performance. In low light have I seen autofocus performance decrease, but any super zoom will have this issue. For most shooting, this won’t be an issue. And it fits the bill nicely for a hand-holdable wildlife lens. This just might be the right choice for many photographers when considering all the options.